January 26, 2012
Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are government-protected regions in which human activity is regulated in order to preserve both marine resources and their unique ecosystems. Through different types of management programs and restriction strategies, government and local communities collaborate in order to protect threatened marine biodiversity and landscapes. Although MPAs may differ substantially in their size, location, and level of restriction, the majority of MPAs are established within territorial waters where enforcement can be ensured.
There are a variety of management approaches utilized by government in order to rehabilitate threated marine ecosystems. The least prevalent—occurring in less than 1 percent of all United States’ waters—are “no-take” zones, areas where fishing is not allowed. Other more common restrictions are ship transit regulated areas and areas of no oil and gas mining. “Seasonal and Temporary Management” restricts fishing seasonally in order to allow fish populations to recover from harvesting, common during the spawning season of over-extracted fish species. Because MPAs are difficult to enforce, communities participate in their protection by managing and imposing restrictions, either independently or jointly with the government. Because they are aimed at addressing ecological and socio-economic needs, in return, they positively influence the communities supporting them.
MPAs are widely recognized as a successful method for not only preventing further marine habitat degradation, but also, for the recovery of targeted fish populations. By limiting access to protected areas, the stress placed on local marine populations— due to fishing and other industry—is substantially reduced. Thus, mortality rates are reduced, which results in the survival and establishment of targeted species’ populations. While perhaps the biomass increase of targeted species might be most noticeable within the boundaries of the MPA, another effect, the ‘spillover effect’, has been shown to boost fish stocks in the areas surrounding MPAs. When localized overpopulation of certain species within the MPA occurs, individuals within fish populations leave the MPA in search of a less competitive environment. This exodus provides a steady stock of fish for fishermen operating outside the MPA. Recent research indicates that the spillover effect also applies to larvae, which drifts with ocean currents to surrounding areas. As a result of this migration, MPAs are designed into networks, which are aimed at establishing fish populations over a large area.
Despite the weight of scientific evidence supporting the benefits of MPAs, certain stakeholders still criticize and oppose the establishment of additional MPAs. The local fishing industry frequently opposes the development of MPAs due to potential restrictions that may limit their access to profitable fishing grounds. This is a natural concern, particularly if local fishermen do not understand the potential benefits of MPAs—increased catches of fish and larger game fish due to the spill over effect. Other major stakeholders, representatives of the shipping industry, argue that certain MPAs restrict the flow of commercial and other various types of shipping vessels, which in turn cost companies money. In addition, oil and gas officials, argue that restrictions prevent them from pursing untapped oil and gas reserves that exist within restricted areas. Finally, the establishment of MPAs might infringe on the rights of indigenous peoples to extract resources from protected areas.
In the beginning of the decade, Marine Protected Areas came to the forefront of many international assemblies. In order to draw attention toward the issue, the World Summit on Sustainable Development (2002), The Evian Agreement (2003), and United Nations Framework Convention of Climate Change (2004) set goals of establishing marine networks by 2012. Although these goals were criticized as vague and ultimately unenforceable, they highlighted the importance of MPAs in order to mitigate recent marine biodiversity loss on a global, regional, and national scale. In effect, many nations, including the United States, pledged to establish them.
In 1999, California passed the Marine Life Protection Act. A part of the California Fish and Game Code, the Marine Life Protection Act requires MPAs to be established into a network by 2011. Designed by a team of public advisers—the Blue Ribbon Task Force, a group of 7 public policy leaders nominated by the California National Recourse Agency— stakeholders and scientific advisory groups, MPAs and networks are created based on scientific case studies and statistical analysis. California’s statewide MPA network is divided into five regional networks—the north coast network, San Francisco Bay network, north central coast network, central coast network, and the south coast network— which are strategically linked together. Initiated in September of 2007 and projected to be completed in 2012, the California MPA network consists of more than 18% of California’s state marine waters. Within the Los Angeles County, a part of the south coast network, there are thirteen MPAs, with nine MPAs surrounding Catalina Island. Evaluated based on adequacy, representability, resilience, and connectivity, these MPAs are constantly being monitored and evaluated in order to improve and gain more information on trends of ecosystem rehabilitation.
Despite an increased awareness towards marine biodiversity and its habitat, there still exist many at-risk marine environments internationally. Because international waters are nearly impossible to monitor and enforce, there remains a huge inconsistency between international and national efforts towards marine protection and rehabilitation. With constantly changing marine ecosystems, due to over extraction, pollution and global warming, marine biodiversity and marine habitats are projected to only deteriorate further. However, scientists and conservation workers are suggesting an international network of MPAs—a web of interconnecting “breeding grounds”, aimed at feeding biodiversity to fisheries and the marine ecosystem on an international scale. Although this might not be politically feasible in the near future, scientific evidence indicates that if this feat can be accomplished, it would positively impact on both the marine environment and those individuals who are economically dependent on the ocean for their survival.
This post was authored by Michalea McLoughlin, a senior Environmental Studies major (BA); and Nick Horsburgh, a senior double majoring in Environmental Studies (BA) and Psychology (BA)